Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top 10 2015 Trans-Pacific Picks (& Pics)

Approaching 2016 begs for a "best of" summary of thus far the most exciting year of my life, sailing over 10,000 miles, from Northern Florida to New Zealand.  In that time we've traveled through 10 island/country/territories countries (USA, Cuba, Colombia, Panama, Galapagos (Ecuador territory), French Polynesia, Cook Islands, American Samoa, Kingdom of Tonga, New Zealand) bringing our grand total in the last 3 years of sailing to 25 country/territories!

We've covered a lot of ground -- err -- water.  Given that, for those of you dreaming of following in our footsteps -- or rather -- wake -- or just along for the virtual ride, here's my... 

Top 10 (+) Trans-Pacific Picks for 2015
My favorites, in chronological order, starting with New Year's eve, as an on-the-cusp"bonus" pick. 

Jose Marti Theater, Havana, Cuba.
"Bonus Pick"
Havana, CUBA
New Year's Eve (& Day)

Visiting Cuba before the US opening relations changes its unique culture forever was high on Wayne's and my bucket list.  Will prices go up and acquiring lodging become difficult once a growing demand exceeds a rather limited supply?  

Paul, Havana Cuba pedicab driver
worked hard to find us a pensionne
for New Year's Eve.
How long before Cuba's classic cars and other quirky transportation disappears?  Will it become "Disneyfied" in a desire to please what is sure to evolve in a flood of US tourist cruise ships and flights?  

View from our Havana Cuba pensionne.
For now at least, we found Cuba affordable, yet rich in culture, vibrant and were touched by the genuine warmth from the people we met.  We know Cuba will change, and hope to return and explore it further, while it's still steeped in natural charm.

Cuba GWT blog posts:

Dawn reflections on Panama's Rio Chagres.
#1 Rio Chagres, PANAMA
While Panama was far from our favorite country (understatement!!!), the small, wild stretch of Rio Chagres that connects directly to the ocean, just a few miles from crime-ridden Colon, is simply magical.

Rio Chagres GWT blog post:

Panama Canal Gatun lock gates opening for a
passing freighter, viewed from the visitor center.
#2 Panama Canal,  PANAMA
Simply put, the Panama Canal, the primary gateway between the great Atlantic and Pacific oceans is an engineering marvel, a force to be reckoned with.  

Panama Canal is not on my list because it's a good time (it's not, in my opinion)or because it's beautiful (most of the trip I saw in daylight tended far more towards ugliness, or at the very best functional industrial design).  It is on my list because it's intimidating, exciting and awe inspiring. 

Successfully passing through its locks was one of the greatest early milestones this year in Journey's long journey.  

Day 2 aboard Journey in the Panama Canal.
These locks we passed through in daylight.
We are grateful to our loving and tolerant canal crew -- Wayne's father Phil (who started Wayne on cruising over 20 years ago), his lovely wife Gunnel and our dear friends Ron and Tricia Bergman.  More ballsy still, we decided late in the game to not use an agent.  Despite it all, we "survived."

Journey, on the Pacific side after
successfully transiting the Panama Canal.
Panama Canal GWT blog posts:

We saw many flamingos in Galapagos,
an unexpected treat!
#3 Galapagos, ECUADOR
Weird and wonderful, Galapagos is the place that inspired Darwin with its unique flora and fauna, adapted to this particularly unusual environment.  Visiting Galapagos is akin to a marine observational safari.  "All" you have to do is get there -- 1,000+ miles was not a trivial distance for us -- and pay -- Galapagos is not a cheap place for cruising boats to visit

Marine iguanas were rampant on Galapagos.
There was even an "Iguana Crossing" sign
where this gazed upon us.
While Panama to Galapagos was only ~25% longer than our Cuba to Columbia passage, if we needed to, upon leaving Cuba there were a number of landfall options between our start and our desired destination.  Such was not the case between Panama and Galapagos.  It was open ocean, a leap of faith where our path was forward, or failure.  Thus, Galapagos was our second big 2015 milestone, our longest passage by far at that point in time.  

There was no question sea lions and not
people comprised Galapagos
most assertive residents.
Despite our initial trepidation, it was our best long passage to date.  We recall it fondly, fervently wishing we get at least one more multi-day passage as mellow as our Panama to Galapagos passage.

We saw both blue footed and red footed
Boobies in Galapagos.
We did indeed see all the rare species we'd hoped to see in their natural environment, as well as enjoy a great guided volcanic trek alongside a recently active volcano.

Galapagos tortoise in a rare grassy spot
in the Sierra Negra volcanic area.
Penguin in the wild of Galapagos - really!
Galapagos GWT blog posts (note:  due to limited wifi in Galapagos followed by no internet for over a month, several Galapagos wildlife photos are not in prior GWT posts)

Hiva Oa's primary anchorage.  We spent several weeks there.

Like Panama to Galapagos, Galapagos to French Marquesas is another point of no return.  At 3,200 "crow flies" miles, it is the longest unbroken stretch of open ocean in the world. There are few boats who can carry the fuel it would take to motor this distance, which includes a sizable known doldrums (no wind) area.  

It took us over a month, fraught with boat issues and weather frustrations to complete the passage.  Our challenges continued right up to the very end, when in ensuing darkness, inaccessible fuel, shredded sails, an uncooperative autopilot and dying wind two cruisers kindly towed us in the last two miles into Hiva Oa via dinghy.  Thankfully, Hiva Oa's blossom-covered isle -- the best smelling place I've been - EVER - ANYWHERE felt like paradise, especially after over a month at sea.  The locals were incredibly cruiser friendly, there was good, fresh food, and the island was also quite pretty.

Hiva Oa GWT blog posts (there are more than these - type "Hiva Oa" in the GWT search box for more):
Playful manta ray in Tuahata.
Tuahata marks the first time I can recall marine life playing with me.  It inspired me to learn more about these intelligent pranksters, manta rays.  A couple locals also invited us -- or maybe we invited ourselves -- to join them for a fresh-caught poisson cru supper, complete with cooking lessons.

Tuahata GWT blog posts:

Bay of Virgins, Fatu Hiva;
amazing natural sculpture and fantastic ambient light.

Fatu Hiva's Bay of Virgins is the most surreally beautiful landscape I've ever seen.  It seemed simply impossible to to take a bad photo there.  

Fatu Hiva GWT blog posts:

Fakarava lagoon by our anchorage.
#7 Fakarava, Tuamotus, FRENCH POLYNESIA
If there was one and only one place in our entire 2015 travels I most wish I could spend more time, it would be in the Tuamotus.  Feeling pressed for time, by the time we left the Marquesas, we stopped at only one island in the Tuamotus, and one spot on that island, the Southern entrance to Fakarava.  I do believe for only going to one island in the Tuamotus, we picked the best one, even if it was blowing like stink (20+ knot winds) most of our time there.

I nicknamed these beady eyed creatures
"Mafia fish."
There we saw the greatest abundance of tropical fish, partaking in Fakarava's famed drift snorkel.  Additionally, the islands are breath-takingly beautiful.  White sand beaches.  Waving coconut palms.  Gentle shallows.  Meandering rivers.  Crystal clear, turquoise water.  

These dramatically salmon-colored sands
were a few minute kayak from our boat.
Envision a pristine tropical paradise, slip in an image of just about any spot in Fakarava, and the fit's picture-perfect.
Fakarava's plentiful blacktip sharks are the marker of 
a healthy reef environment.  They're not known for attacking humans.

Sooty terns in the Fakarava South pass area.
Fakarava GWT blog post:
Note - My Macintosh died while in the Tuamotus and there no wifi at the boat and few nearby options.  There will be some backfill Fakarava posts, photos and videos.
View from Journey's mast, Fakarava.

#8 Maupiti, Society Islands, FRENCH POLYNESIA
Maupiti overlook.  Best viewpoint all year.
Theoretically, we were all done with French Polynesia, and checked out of what we considier the highly over-rated island of Bora Bora.  We snuck in one last stop, illegally, to Maupiti.  We're glad we did -- it was our favorite Society island.  Fantastic white sand beaches, the best viewpoint of the year, our one "fun" SCUBA dive of the year, hanging out with huge manta rays, and a concerted local effort to share Polynesian traditions with visitors at a reasonable price with a friendly, laid-back attitude.  One hitch:  Maupiti's narrow entrance can get dangerously nasty; weather windows need to be carefully monitored for trip planning and treated with respect.

Maupiti GWT blog posts

Poking around Uoleva's extensive reef system.
#9 Ha’apai Island Group, KINGDOM OF TONGA
Traditionally, Tonga's Vava'u group is the most popular part of Tonga for cruising.  Vava'u's big draw is swimming with whales, but our budget and an early season whale exodus, coupled with lots of crappy weather discouraged us from opening our wallet for a whale swim.  While we appreciated all the efforts the Blue Water Festival folks made in introducing us to Tonga's intriguing culture in Nieafu, Vava'u, overall we were underwhelmed by the Vava'u islands beaches, snorkeling and weather.  

Colorful coral like these gave us the impression
Ha'afeva's reef appears to be returning to health.

Despite our waning cruising season window, we decided to explore Tonga's less-traveled Ha'apai islands.  Fortunately, we timed our Ha'apai cruising perfectly with a return to Tonga's normally nice "dry season" weather.  While it's important to go to the Ha'apais well-provisioned and self-sufficient all around, it's worth the effort.  Sandy, white beaches, clear water, colorful coral, friendly locals, and pristine islands were a treat.  I'd still choose spending more time in the Tuamotus over going to Tonga, but for cruisers with more time, or desiring more interaction with the local culture, the Ha'apais are a special place, special enough to make my top 10 of the places we've visited this year.

Kelefesia wins my prize of the year for the most dramatic
and remote motu of 2015.

Ha'apai GWT blog posts
(Note:  more retrospective posts, particularly on Ha'afeva and Kelefesia are likely as wifi was limited in the Ha'apais)

This is about as close as Minerva Reef gets to providing "land."
#10 Minerva Reef, "KINGDOM OF TONGA"
Minerva Reef, which is completely submerged all but an hour or so a day, provides a modicum of protection for cruisers sailing between Tonga and New Zealand doing their best to time the 1,100+ trip between doldrums and wicked storm fronts.  Roughly it's 275 miles from Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa, and about 800 miles from New Zealand.  Besides Minerva, there's virtually nothing besides open ocean between Tonga and New Zealand.

Tiny Christmas tree worm on colorful coral in Minerva Reef.

Minerva Reef GWT blog posts:

What Drives My Top Picks?
Snorkeling, kayaking, a strong local culture and impactful events even if they're not entirely pleasant more heavily influence my list.  Wayne's Top 10 List differs some from mine, though within my top 20 list, we are in agreement, overall. Really great beaches are a more important driver for Wayne than for me, though I enjoy them too.

Are you interested in my Top 20 2015 list (my remaining 10 top picks)?

Location Location:
We're currently in New Zealand for safe harbor in cyclone season, which runs from December through May.  This blog was written while anchored in Waitata, near Russell (S35.15.355 E174.08.021) and pre-posted to run New Year's eve.  We expect to be on our way to Whangarei when this posts, quite likely out of wifi range.

Cruising by the Numbers
We left Jacksonville Florida in December 2014, and arrived on New Zealand December 21, 2015, after sailing over 10,000 miles.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Moturua's Gorgeous Light (New Zealand's Bay of Islands)

Predawn in Moturua's Waiwhapuku Bay (aka Army Bay),
Bay of of Islands, New Zealand

It's doubly appropriate Moturua island's gorgeous light naturally conjures up the refrain "Oh say can you see, by the dawn's early light*...." Based on prior military presence, Waiwhapuku Bay earned its alternate moniker, Army Bay.

*part of the USA's national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner," referencing the symbolism of the American flag and written to drum up a patriotic response to war.

Dawn emerges, Bay of of Islands, Waiwhapuku Bay,

Moturua Island, New Zealand.

The leisurely trail circumnavigating Moturua winds through Navy structure remnants left behind from World War II, when they were erected for defense.

Like nearby Motuarohia (aka Roberton, our prior Bay of Islands stop), Maoris originally inhabited Moturua. Locals at both islands welcomed Captain Cook.  The French who followed at Motuarohia, however, had some skirmishes, with bloody results.  

View of Waiwhapuku Bay, New Zealand from Moturua Island trail.
Note the rain, which occurred off and on during our hike,

Today formerly deforested Moturua is returning to its roots, as native plant reforestation takes hold.

A steady turnover of boats anchored then mostly left for picnics, hikes, and swims.  We're not sure where they were all so fired up to go next, we happily enjoyed the placid beauty and excellent shelter for a couple days.  

Waiwhapuku Bay stilled enough for reflections as dusk approached.
Long, graceful shadows stretched from the trees over the water,
a pleasant contrast to the bright yellow-green 
grassy carpeting.

We appreciated Moturua's gentle ups and downs of the trail as it worked its way around.  After spending so much time this year in 150 square foot space. we're rather out of shape.  This, rather than New Zealand's mountainous South Island offer a better re-introduction to our land legs.

Sunset cast its golden glow over the rocks
off nearby Motukiekie Island

As the wind warnings abated, we gave Moturua a fond goodbye as we pushed off for our next stop, the Cavallis, just beyond the Bay of Islands.

That little boat with the burgundy sail covers is ours.  Yes, it's a
tiny boat, but not too small to sail 10,000+ miles
across the Pacific this year.
Location Location
This recent retrospective covers our time in Moturua (S3513.076 E174.11.604), from December 17-20, 2015.  When it posts, we'll be in the midst of a several day trip to Whangarei, planning in extra time to stop for sights along the way.  We expect to be mostly out of wifi range until we arrive in Whangarei just after New Years.

Cruising by the Numbers
While these next few months we won't sail very far, between December 2014 and November 2015 we sailed over 10,000 miles, from Florida to New Zealand.  Once cyclone season abates, we'll resume cruising more serious distances, though far less than we did this last year.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

NZ's Happy Trails @ Roberton (Motuarohia) Island

Wayne making way back to the anchorage on our first stop at Motuarohia (Roberton) island.  It was far chiller and less crowded then.
In the Eastern portion of New Zealand's lovely Bay of Islands, a mere 7 miles from Opua, rests the purportedly "the most photographed" of the bunch, Roberton Island -- Motuarohia is its Māori  name.

Trail head viewpoint, looking East across Motuarohia.
Like RussellMotuarohia's serenity belies a darker history.  As of 1979, Motuarohia came under the care of the Department of Conservation, though nearly half of the island is privately owned. 

Originally the island's inhabitants were Māoris.  In 1869 after a bit of gunfire, Captain Cook and his crew were welcomed with food and water, likely helped by a Māori conversant Tahitian aboard.  Eventually the land was sold to John Roberton, who farmed it.  However, after John Roberton died, his widow, Elizabeth Roberton, resumed farming with Thomas Bull.  They did not get along with a local chief's teenage son, Maketū Wharetōtara who murdered Bull, Elizabeth, her two children and the granddaughter of the Ngāpuhi leader Rewa, who lived with the Robertons.  Maketū was tried, found guilty and hung, the first enactment of the death penalty in New Zealand.

Motuarohia's sandy shore -- at least in this Bay.
Today Motuarohia's returning to its natural roots, thanks to massive replantings of native trees and shrubs.

Of the four main bays, all offer safe anchorage for visitors.  The largest and most popular is a sand-fringed South Eastern bay, where we enjoyed our our Christmas festivities.  It's also where the park's popular lagoons and lookout trail head originates, leading to an exceptional 360 degree Bay of Islands view.

Another cruiser gazes across Motuarohia's
most popular anchorage site.
On Christmas morning my kayak paddle led to an interesting encounter on the adjacent bay to the West.  Needing desperately to expel my morning coffee, I hauled kayak ashore the broad pebbly beach, searching urgently for a sufficiently private "nature girl" spot to do my biz.  Seeing a road, a dock and a home to my right, I bore past a kayak-strewn grassy stretch at my left.  There was a boardwalk trail beyond it leading upward, and beyond that, a cliff.  Up I went, eventually finding a spot to step off the boardwalk and do, quickly as possible, what was necessary.

Figuring I may as well make the most of the trail, I returned to the boardwalk to take in the views.  A few minutes further it became apparent it was leading to a private home.  In the interest of respecting their privacy, I eschewed the nearby views and made a quick about face, heading back to the beach.

This point divided our anchorage from the bay to the West
that I kayaked into.
Exiting the boardwalk, I encountered a tall fair-haired man wearing a peach-colored golfing shirt, apparently about to tell me something.  Realizing he likely was a property owner, I apologized, explaining once I realized I was approaching a private home and not on a public island trail head, I turned around. 

"Was there a private property sign?" I asked.  "No," he replied, "though it is private property."  He admitted when the occasional uninvited visitor showed up, he would decide based on their attitude whether to tell them to bugger off, or whether to welcome them.

Private property view of Motuarohia's North West cove.
Determining I intended to harm (other than if you consider the real reason for my stop, which I had no intention of sharing - harmful), the man -- Murray -- offered me a tour.  I paused, both out of private embarrassment and because I needed to return to finish my Christmas lunch preparation soon, but agreed, letting him know I was expected back soon at the adjacent anchorage. 

I hopped in Murray's proffered Jeep, and he drove up to a home atop the island's Eastern hill.  Wayne and I noticed Murray's home from the Western trail vista, wondering if its building materials were delivered by helicopter.  They were.   The view of Motuarohia's exquisitely transparent emerald-colored North-facing coves was even better than from the public trail head.  "Good snorkeling?" I asked about the Eastern-most cove?  Yes, Murray said.

Closer view of Motuarohia's North West cove.
thanked Murray, and returned to my kayak, Journey and a Christmas lunch on a the best sun-sparkled day since our arrival in New Zealand.  Much as I enjoyed the cruiser Christmas feast, my true Christmas present was overcoming an embarrassment that ultimately led to an incredible, unexpected view.  Like Captain Cook's visit, I too am glad my "invasion" was ultimately welcomed.

Location Location
We're currently anchored at Bay of Islands Waitata Bay (S35.15.355 E174.08.021) near Russell and than 2 miles from Motuarohia (S35.14.120 E174.10.094), just across New Zealand's Bay of Islands.  We're about to head over to Pahia to prep for a leisurely, multi-day passage with stops along the way to Whangarei.  If you'd like to see area looks like, watch for some upcoming posts of our explorations in the area just before Christmas.

Cruising by the Numbers
We're just doing short hops since our November 21st arrival in New Zealand until May 2016 when cyclone season ends and it's safe to foray further.  We sailed over 10,000 miles this year since leaving Florida in December 2014.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Gluttony Loves Company - NZ Christmas on the Beach

New Zealand Cruiser's Christmas eve cheer -with new found friends - dinghy raft in Roberton's Bay of Islands.  Santas hats & leis.
Cruisers Christmas on the beach in New Zealand.... 

Even though Dave was the only one with an umbrella,
the rain didn't dampen our spirits.
What you do when you're far from home, friends and family with a bunch of other fine folks literally in the same boat - well - anchorage.  There were a tad less than twenty of us in the anchorage, most, like us, crossed the Pacific this year.

Christmas eve we toasted each other happy holidays in a dinghy raft (a bunch of dinghies tied together) in Roberton (aka Motuarohia).  Nibblies were passed around with the sips, and good cheer was had by all despite the cold and the rain.  Santa caps and leis added to the festive mood.

Christmas potluck on Roberton beach -- a true New Zealand feast!
Yes, it's summer time in theory in New Zealand, though most nights dip into the 50s and 60s (no heater on our boat - brrr) and warm days reach the 70s.  

Miraculously, this year's upside down (Southern Hemisphere) Christmas day gifted us the most perfect weather since we arrived in New Zealand a little over a month ago.  The sun shone, the winds were mostly light, requiring only an anchor on one side to keep the tented potluck pavilion from taking flight.

The potluck spread was amazing!  Lasagna with fresh tomatoes and basil, home-made noodles and little meatballs -- freshest-tasting I've ever eaten -- and paella were the favorites.  Not my traditional Christmas fare -- what a treat!  

Eve (in the boa hat) brought the traditional turkey,
proffered by Maca and Jan of Phoebe.
Eve on Auntie stripped her oven, thawed the tiniest turkey she could find, pounded it a bit flatter and managed to cook it despite minuscule size of her (and most)  boat ovens.

Brad wears Eve's boa well -- everything's better with beer!
Appropriately enough, we ate under a Kiwi Christmas tree, naturally decorated in bright red blossoms.

David of Rewa shared his "new toy," a drone to take aerial photos of the event.  It worked beautifully until a gust of wind or slip of the finger converted it into an unintentional weed-whacker.  Fingers crossed David can find the parts to fix it soon.

Slim Sasha wears Eve's boa around her waist.

Hardly, at least by most American Christmas standards.


Definitely!  Thank you, my fellow cruising new found friends for all your good cheer.

May all your Christmases be as filled with wonderful surprises and the warmth of good people, old or new friends and family if you're lucky enough to be in the same place.

Another spectacular sunset, perfect for Christmas,
Roberton Island New Zealand.
Location Location
This Christmas was celebrated on New Zealand's Roberton (aka Motuarohia) in the Bay of Islands (S35.14.120 E174.10.094).  We're currently enjoying some beach days back at Waitata Bay (S35.15.355 E174.08.02), less than 2 miles from Roberton, just over the hill from Russell.

Cruising by the Numbers
Between December 2014 and November 21 2015 we sailed over 10,000 miles from Jacksonville Florida USA to Opua New Zealand.  We're in New Zealand until cyclone season ends, in May 2016.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Upside Down Christmas: Noel from the Land of the Long White Cloud

Kiwi Christmas tree, the pohutukawa
 Image pilfered from wikipedia.
Christmas commercialism is refreshingly understated here in the Land of the Long White Cloud (New Zealand), compared to US standards.  Thus far, the only prominent and heavily decorated "traditional" conical Christmas tree was Whangarei’s riverside public square.

Rumor has it there’s even a nod to native plants and a recognition Christmas occurs in summer here in Southern hemisphere-based New Zealand.  The red-blossomed pohutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa),  purportedly marks the Kiwi Christmas season.

As we made our last stop in Paihia Wednesday December 16th, before heading off the grid until perhaps New Year’s, told Wayne I hadn’t made any plans for Christmas gift-giving.  When I asked if he was okay with that, he reminded me he still owes my for my birthday (last January) as well as our anniversary. Holidays are not such a big deal when every day feels like a precious gift.  Being present, in the lifestyle we’re living for now – seeing the world via sailboat -- is a far greater gift than anything purchased.

Close up of the New Zealand Christmas tree, phutukawa's
blossoms as seen on the Motukawanui ridge trail,
New Zealand's Cavallis Islands.
Long live the spirit of the upside down pahutukawa Kiwi Christmas trees  with their fiery red natural blossoms and the simple joys of enjoying where you are for the best that it is.

Thanks Wayne, for making it all possible in the Land of the Long White Cloud!

Wishing you a happy holiday complete with whatever traditions bring you the most joy.

Sunset at Roberton Island, Bay of Islands New Zealand, where we
may or may not make the cruiser's Christmas get-together there.
Location Location
We are currently cruising New Zealand's North Island between Whangaroa and Whangarei, where we expect to haul out sometime in January.  This post was written for pre-posting December 21, 2015 while were briefly in wifi range while anchored in Whangaroa (S35.02.836 E173.44.514).

Cruising by the Numbers
Between December 2014 and November 2015 -- 11 months -- we sailed over 10,000 miles, from our starting point of Jacksonville Florida to New Zealand, our stopping point until May 2016.